Sunday, January 26, 2020

Into Borneo

There are a few places that were high on my places to explore. No, not my "bucket list", I am bored of that overused cliche. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, and Borneo have always been places I have wanted to explore. I made it to Sri Lanka, I am waiting for my visa for my job in Mongolia that would start in August. Now it is Borneo's turn. With a dark history of headhunters, rebellion, impenetrable jungles, man-eating crocodiles, huge blood-sucking leeches and deadly elusive snakes, hair spiders, what's not to love? Bangkok to KL to Kuching was $89 US on Air Asia and with a clickety clickety click I was booked.

Being in Bangkok I was closer to Sarawak than I was Sabah, the two main entry points into Malaysian Borneo. Sabah is more popular and ready for tourists but Sarawak is considered a hidden gem. Sarawak worked for me as I could make my way across Malaysian Borneo, have a look at Brunei then head over to the Philippines. There will be trekking, diving and just good old fashioned wandering around and having a look.

I booked a home-stay, The Jazepuri-Jaze 2 that had great reviews and was across the river from the main tourist area. There was a short boat ride across the river giving me the best of both worlds. My transfer through KL immigration was a bit stressful. The lineups were long and the queue took almost 90 minutes before I got stamped through. The aggravation was topped by hoards of Chinese tourists trying to butt in line and push past everyone. It got a bit heated at times with various people putting a stop to it. Of course, the Chinese pretended not to understand English, even though they were just speaking it. Good Times. Anyways, I had about an hour to catch my now domestic flight which meant more screening of bags but that is all routine for me now. I arrived in Kuching without issue. The airport is small and as I do not check my rucksack I was off the plane and in my GRAB (much better than Uber) in about 15 minutes. I was in Borneo!

Now, having just spent a week in the chaos of Bangkok with its modern buildings, crowds of people, noise, traffic and action everywhere I did not quickly transition into my new situation. As we wound our way from the airport through Kuching I thought "what did I just get myself into"? It was very sparse with so much greenery but what do you expect it was Borneo, and Borneo means jungle. Kuching is spread out and has a population of over 500,000 people. I think I saw 5 of them on the way in. We found my home-stay but I had no idea which direction I was facing. I bought a local SIM card at the airport, called the owner and his gates swung open.

Zack gave me the rundown of the house and the area. I could walk to the jetty for the boat to the riverfront in about 5 minutes and the cost to cross was 1 Ringgit. I was given my keys to the house and room plus the fob to the gate. He offered me all the help I needed and I would pay later. I like that trust. He was incredibly friendly without being overbearing.

On the way to the home-stay, the Grab driver and I were talking about food in Borneo. He mentioned I had to try "ayam pansuh" (pronounced I am pant su). It is chicken cooked in a bamboo shoot. I thought nothing of it until I mentioned it to Zack. He was on it right away! His cousin owns one of the highest TripAdvisor restaurants in Kuching. My Village Barok. It was on his side of the river and it was in the village he grew up in. Only about a 10-minute car ride for him. I would cross the river that evening, explore a bit and enjoy the light show. Basically, get used to the waterfront area. At 9:00  I would walk to another boat crossing, about 2 km along the boardwalk, take the short boat ride and his village was right there. I just had to look for the Hilton and cross there.

I cleaned myself up, crossed the river and started exploring the town. The city has a large Chinese population and it was Chinese New Year so a double whammy of fun stuff. The boardwalk was busy with food vendors and small kiosks and lots of smiles. The city has made a huge effort to keep it simple and clean. The focus is not on the vendors, but the riverfront itself. I found Chinatown, India town and The Drunk Monkey. The ladder I would get to know quite well.

The highlight each evening along with Waterfront is a light and water show recently created to promote Sarawak. I figured, yeah sure whatever. I have seen them all. Well, I was wrong. It was pretty impressive. Here is a link for the details and here is a video to watch.

When I crossed back to meet Zack, we had a bit of confusion but ultimately we met up. The restaurant was tucked away a bit and it was busy. The little village has a nice vibe to it. I would find out more about it the more time I spent with Zack. First looks and I probably would have walked right by the restaurant without giving it a second glance. Zack took charge and ordered my Chicken in Bamboo and he drank tea while I ate. It was so good. They poured the chicken, broth and green spinach type veggies from the bamboo into a bowl. Everything cooking in the chicken's natural juices. Needless to say, I destroyed it, even after eating a bit of street food from the waterfront.

What started out as a bumpy travel day turned out to be a great start to my time in Kuching, Sarawak, and Borneo. The hurry-up attitude I had from being in Thailand disappeared quickly. The confusion of "Where the hell am I" changed to "Look at where the hell you are" by the end of my delicious dinner.

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